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January 23, 2012

How to Write a Good Abstract for a Law Review Article

When you write an abstract, you are marketing your own work–you act as your own PR agent.p You’ve already done the work of writing your article, and now you must do the good work of presenting your research Lite-style to articles editors. Aside from your school’s letterhead, it’s the most influential aspect of your paper.p Think of it as intellectual plastic surgery: you augment the exterior to convey to others how you think you should be seen. (See, Jocelyn Wildenstein )

We’ve seen fabulous advice on other blogs about writing a really good abstract ( Dudziak and Volokh ). They are great for achieving the appropriate tone and style that will impress student editors.p Missing from these instructions is a MadLib-style skeleton. Sometimes, it’s nice to sit back and be uncreative in your creativity. (See, "Sh!t [insert very specific demographic here] People Say" meme. If you have no idea what this is, click here .)p First time writers or seasoned scholars all can benefit from a 1040-EZ approach to abstract writing that conveys scholarly import without seeming overtly boastful.

After all, your paper is the most important thing ever written, right?p The other people that wrote on the same thing tried to do it right, but your new idea is so amazing too?p And you have a recommendation for improvement or a different way of seeing things?p Just like my new way of writing abstracts?

Here is is: short and sweet.p Fill in the blanks and Voila!p You are on your way to publication. Follow this abstractoskeleton, and you will have an excellent abstract. Other people may have their own way of doing it, or disagree with my ordering…but then they should write their own abstracts.

Sentence #1:p FIRST PARAGRAPH. State the landscape–what is the current state of things?p One short, actively-verbed sentence.
#2: State the problem–What’s wrong with that landscape you just mentioned? What will happen?p Paint a bleak, end-of-days picture.
#3: Quickly say what you think needs to be done.p This is the most important single sentence in your abstract.p You should be able to describe your entire paper here. You must do it in one sentence.
#4: What have others written about this?p Choose someone big with a well cited book or paper.
#5: What are those other arguments missing?p
#6: SECOND PARAGRAPH: How would you do it differently? Do you have a theoretical lens that would make for an interesting analysis?
#7: Why is this paper important? In one sentence, you should end by stating the intellectual contribution that your paper makes.

Posted by Kevin Maillard at 08:59 AM in Law Reviews | Permalink



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Kelly Anders

Speaking as a former journalist, I think writing an effective abstract is akin to creating a good headline for a news article. It needs to give the gist, while still encouraging readers to want to read further. Ideally, an abstract shouldn’t be too long; depending on the topic, a second paragraph may not always be necessary. However, these seven steps provide excellent guidance on what to include. I would add that one should refrain from writing an abstract in the first person (i.e., never use "I").

Posted by:
Kelly Anders |
January 23, 2012 at 10:40 AM

Jacqui Lipton

And to add even more analogies, when sending query letters to magazines for fiction and non-fiction articles, authors need a ‘hook’ and a paragraph explaining what is new and exciting about their article and why they are the person who the magazine should contract with to write the article. It’s a pretty similar exercise, although in a query letter, one does tend to use the first person.

Posted by:
Jacqui Lipton |
January 23, 2012 at 01:18 PM

Steven Lubet

What is wrong with using the first person in an article abstract at the submission stage? Query letters and book proposals always use the first person, as do research agendas. Why would a submission abstract be different (as opposed the ultimate abstract at the beginning of a published piece, which is roughly the equivalent of jacket copy on a book)?

Posted by:
Steven Lubet |
January 23, 2012 at 06:29 PM

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